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  • Writer's pictureAyelet HaShachar

Bamidbar and Shavuot

This drash on Parshat Bamidbar on Shavuot was delivered by Daniel Van Sluys Erlich on Friday 14 May 2021.

This week’s parasha is Parashat Bamidbar, meaning ‘In the Desert’, and to be honest it’s not a very thrilling read. The Jewish people are wandering through the Sinai desert trying to find their way around - keep in mind this was before they were banished for 40 years - and God commands Moses to conduct a census of the entire population - this is why in English the book of Bamidbar is called ‘Numbers’. Keep in mind that there had already been two previous censuses of the people and this is the third within the space of a single year. Why did God love censuses so much? Rashi tells us it was because God expressed his love for the Israelites by counting them, over and over again. Now imagine being in Moses’ shoes being ordered to conduct a census of thousands of people on your own, counting everyone head by head. It’s pretty tough.

So anyways, Moses counts and counts and counts and he ends up with, from all the 12 tribes of Israel, a number of 603,550. After this census is completed, the 12 tribes camp around the Tabernacle with three tribes on each north, south, east and west side, each group with its own representative flag, surrounding the Tabernacle in the middle. Now you might ask, 603,550 what? Was it people, people and their animals, only men, only women, only people of a certain age perhaps? Well, as with everything in the Torah, it’s not that simple. Moses only counted men between the ages of 20-60 in every tribe besides the tribe of Levi, where he counted 22,000 males from the age of one and older, as the Levites would be the chosen tribe to serve in the Tabernacle. In addition to God showing his love, a more practical reason for why this census was conducted lies in the fact that the Israelites were preparing for a military campaign to take over the promised land. This is why the 11 tribes counted their 20-60 year old men; they were about to be conscripted for a military invasion.

Now, I think that this parasha and the idea of taking a census and numbers coincides nicely with the recent release of the Crossroads 21 report from Plus 61J Media. It's a truly groundbreaking report regarding Australian Jewry and wider Australian sentiment towards Jews, but something that I felt as I read the report was the amount of endless numbers, statistics, and percentages there were. Don’t get me wrong I don’t hate statistics, I’m studying it this semester at uni and it’s not too bad, but something that inevitably happens with reports such as these, and censuses such as in Bamidbar, is that the numbers override and drown out the humanity of the people involved. You stop thinking of the individuals and communities but rather of the dry numbers and figures which represent them. It almost feels abstract in a way.

Now to counteract this ‘dehumanisation’ which arises from large censuses and reports, the Torah offers an interesting solution. It describes the act of counting as : se’u et rosh, literally meaning “lift the head.” This is really strange. Moses would have had to go around the entire population asking people to lift their heads to him. Surely it would be easier to just get out a notebook and tally everyone up? Hebrew contains many verbs meaning “to count”: limnot, lifkod, lispor, lachshov. Why does the Torah not use these much simpler words? The answer is that in lifting the head of each individual and acknowledging their individuality, we ensure that each person feels significant, and not just another statistic in Moses’ census.

When we feel insignificant, questions such as “What am I? What difference can I make? I’m only one person, why should I bother?” arise, and limit our abilities to enact tikkun olam; repairing the world.

Now I want to apply this concept to the recent conflict. As I received article after article and notification after notification about the number of rockets, number of injuries, number of deaths, number of riots in Gaza, Jerusalem, and wider Israel, it all became diluted to me. I would look at my phone, see a Haaretz live update telling of more rockets in Tel Aviv and surrounding areas, and I’d go “damn that really sucks” but then just get on with my work. It wasn’t until I began talking to my friends, my family, and my loved ones who were in those life-threatening situations that I truly began to feel that deep fear and sadness. It wasn’t until I saw raw footage from the ground that the human cost of this violence on both sides truly struck me. And it all made me feel desperately hopeless. Sitting in Australia on the other side of the world, what could I possibly do to impact what was going on in Israel? The answer is discourse and education. We have a responsibility as members of our community to not let stereotypes and hatred dictate dialogue. We must not forget that the vast majority of people most impacted by this recent violence are those who are the least involved. We must not forget the humanity on both sides.

In the lead up to Shavuot which starts this Sunday, I call upon our community to be open to dialogue, and to figuratively ‘lift their head’ to challenging debates and topics. In a chag all about collaboration and education; a chag where you stay up all night with friends and family discussing, learning, and critically thinking, we must remember that we all have a role to play. We must remember that peace will not be achieved through violence, but rather through open dialogue, empathy and education.

And with that, I wish you all a Shabbat shalom.

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